Return


Welcome back to Poetry Monday. Hope you had a relaxing weekend. Here is your poetry offering to stat your week. Be well, stay safe.

return

coming back, the boomerang path,

the return to the familiar grasp

that launched the open triangle

spinning through space,

I and I joined

by we.

in spinning,

closed by flight,

a temporary bird.

now, finally, home.

the life left behind

rejoined

completing the open side,

finishing the form.

p.ferenczi

Posted in America, Family, Poetry, Thoughts & Musings, Travel | 2 Comments

The Age of Robots


I confess to being a sci-fi addict ever since as a young boy I first read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Since then, much of the fantasy has become reality, along with other science fiction themes we now take for granted. (Imagine a smartphone 30-40 years ago!) While Asimov’s positronic brain in “I, Robot” still seems a ways away, we now have humanoid robots capable of dancing to a Motown beat, serving as companions to children and the elderly (in Japan), and robotic manufacturing continues to displace millions of workers in factories throughout the world. Do you know what is the number one occupation listed on IRS forms in the USA? It is that of a driver. Autonomous cars and trucks are already a technical reality, and while no one knows exactly how long it will take for them to replace many, if not most, of those currently employed as drivers, it’s not likely to be very long. From the viewpoint of companies requiring drivers to perform needed delivery tasks, the cost/benefit ratio is so huge that the decision to change is economically inevitable. That is, if the only economic interest is that of the company and its shareholders. However, when you look at our economy from a national or global perspective, the calculus is less straightforward. Who will buy goods and services when large masses of people are without jobs?

It was exactly a hundred years ago that the word “robot” first entered our language, thanks to the play R.U.R. (Ressum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech playwright Karl Capek. The concept of a mechanical humanoid creature goes back at least as far as the 3rd century B.C. in a story about Talos, the giant bronze guardian of the harbor of Crete. 16th century Jewish mythology gave us the tale of the Golem, a creature made of clay designed to protect the Jews of Prague. Finally, in 1818, Mary Shelley captured the world’s imagination with her classic novel, Frankenstein. (If you never read the book, Dr. Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the creature he created from body parts.) A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that these stories, aside from their novelty in stimulating our interest, raise some very important and deep seated questions challenging us into today. “What makes us human?” “If we ever create a machine (robot) capable of independent thought, does it have any rights?” “How can we know what another intelligence is thinking?” And the question that is immediately pertinent today, “Do the benefits of progress outweigh its dangers?”

Growing up at a time of increased mechanization of manual labor, it wasn’t hard to foresee that opportunities for those who earned their daily bread by the sweat of their brow and the strength of their back would continue to decrease with time. The classic ballad of “John Henry” breaking his heart trying to keep up with the steam driven pile driver was a lesson to most of us. I chose to pursue higher education, and found a career in medicine. Now, I can see that even with 24 years of formal education, there is no longer certainty of employment in those following my path. Artificial intelligence is growing in its abilities to perform as well, if not better, at certain repetitive tasks previously thought impossible for anyone but a highly trained physician. This includes the ability to “read” and interpret X-rays, cytology specimens, and drug treatments. With the ability to send digitized images anywhere in the world, it becomes possible for doctors in other countries with lower standards of living, and therefore lower wages, to perform many of the same functions we do. This is true not only in medicine, but also in business, technology, and other “intellectual” professions.

The urgent question facing our societies is what to do with all the people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the forces of technology, of progress? These forces are creating increasingly greater divides between the haves and the have-nots, between those who benefit from progress, and those who are harmed by it. Our ability to create new jobs and new opportunities for the increasing numbers of our citizens displaced by our current and future adoption of technology keeps decreasing with time. Part of this has to do with our education system’s failures, but also part has to do with the high complexity demands of new jobs that not everyone is capable of performing.

Aside from the financial benefits of work, somehow society needs to find ways for those who are not gainfully employed to find the social and emotional satisfaction that work provides, including a sense of self-worth. Failure to do so is going to result in massive and continued social unrest. Based on history, this type of unrest turns eventually to violent revolution or brutal suppression by those at the top of the food-chain. The movie “Blade Runner” was loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Somehow, this dystopian story of a detective hunting for robots in our midst doesn’t seem all that far fetched anymore.

Posted in America, Computers and Internet, History, News and politics, Revolution, Science, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Demobilized


It’s Monday morning, a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King. I wonder what he would think if he could see our country now? We, as at other times but more so now, need people of courage to lead, to inspire. Poetry Monday presses on.

demobilized

I am here today.

I was here yesterday.

I will be here tomorrow.

months since I could say that.

I stopped moving two days ago, maybe three,

and I am disoriented,

like a passenger on a train suddenly halted

who sees the world still struggling to slide past the window.

my senses bounce from the same four walls

confused by familiarity.

at first a rumble of distress,

but vertigo passes.

here is the old world made new,

the newcomer’s view,

the moment I have been training for

without knowing I was training at all.

p.ferenczi

Posted in America, Poetry, Thoughts & Musings, Travel | 2 Comments

Loneliness


I received a phone call last night from one of my older friends to tell me that her dog had just died. I expressed my sympathy, but she caught me at a bad time, so we didn’t have a very long conversation. Reflecting back on what happened, I called back today to really talk. When she answered the phone, the first thing she said was, “I’m so glad you called. I have been feeling lonely all day.” My friend is not alone. She lives with her daughter, and has a son with whom she keeps close contact. She has other friends. Yet, she finds herself afflicted with a condition common to many – loneliness.

Loneliness is a subjective experience, making it difficult to identify. Some people appear to have a lot of social contacts, but still feel like nobody really knows them, or they don’t really feel close to many people.

Social psychologists offer a definition of loneliness as the gap between the social connections you would like to have and those you feel you experience. In a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2018, 22% of adults in the USA say they are always or often feel lonely. A 2019 survey by Cigna, the large health insurer, found 61% of Americans report feeling lonely. In 2017, the U.S. Surgeon General called loneliness a public health epidemic.

One recent Harvard study posited that the increased mortality risk from loneliness equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and in excess of being obese. Researchers are now finding that some of these risks can be traced back to a relationship with inflammation and harmful changes in DNA expression caused in part by chronic stress placing the body in a constant low level fight-or-flight response.

Add to all this the Covid pandemic forcing all of us to be in self-isolation and to maintain social distancing, and you have a perfect storm. Olivia Laing, a New York Times columnist observed, “We are all lonely now.”

When speaking of being lonely, most people refer to interpersonal loneliness, such as “Do I have someone who is really a friend, a person I can share my troubles with?” However, there are those, especially in the 18-30 year old crowd, who experience an existential loneliness. “Does my life have any purpose, meaning? How can my mote of an existence fit into this vast universe?” There is yet a third type of loneliness –  societal. “If I enter a room, is my arrival welcome?” Prejudice increases this type of loneliness, affecting those whose color, class, body shape, beauty, gender identification or disability makes them stand apart from society’s expressed preferences.

Finally, loneliness begets loneliness. When you are feeling lonely is the time you are least likely to want to reach out to others, but it’s vital that you do so. People are typically embarrassed about loneliness because they think it ties to some kind of inadequacy on their part. Yet, you are the one who has to reach out, to initiate contact, and reach out to someone you know.

You can’t really talk about the problems of loneliness without talking about our problems with friendship. One of the defining features of American society has been its mobility. It’s not unusual for Americans to move multiple times, often large distances. While this mobility has benefits, it also fractures friendships. What value do we place on friendship in the calculus of our decisions? I’m always surprised when those close to retirement talk about moving to another state, though they often know no one in their intended new location. When I ask, “But what about your friends?” I always get the reply, “No problem, we’ll just make some new ones.” In my experience, it’s been rare to find people willing to have conversations beyond safe topics of sports, work gossip, traffic, the weather, etc,,  even before politics became the very loaded subject that exists today. There are real risks in having these kinds of talks, and most people I meet prefer to focus on fun and entertainment. There are people who see each other socially on a regular basis, yet would be hard pressed to say what the other really thought about ethics, God, the death penalty, race, forgiveness, or any number of controversial topics, not the least of which is “Could they be friends with someone whose opinions differed fundamentally from their own?” True friendships create bonds of obligation and mutual trust, and at least in what I have observed, most people are leery of placing themselves in this type of relationship. It doesn’t help that our society measures success by achievement and accumulation of wealth, so it shouldn’t be surprising that young people expand almost all their time and energy attempting to reach these targets. Who has time for friendship (a far cry from the networking model of our social strivers) and personal relationships when we’re busy achieving career success? Perhaps, if we wish to avoid the loneliness which is clearly becoming epidemic, we need to start reading more books on how to be a great friend instead of a how to be the next millionaire, and start investing more into our friendships than into our 401-Ks.

Has there been anyone in your life who means a lot to you? Have you spoken lately? Call them now.

Posted in America, friendship, Health and wellness, Loneliness, Relatioships, Religion, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged | 6 Comments

Postcard to Jack


Welcome back to another Poetry Monday. Most of us are dreaming of being able to travel again after almost a year of lock-down with no immediate end in sight. Here is a paean by our poet to the writer who inspired many to hit the road, and the power of the written word to change the lives of others. Enjoy it, be well.

postcard to Jack

well, Jack, seems the fuse you lit in me

finally reached the charge.

it was a slow burn;

my moldering teens dampened the wick.

you know I almost turned computer programmer?

no kidding.

I pulled back just before the trap sprang

and went to New York looking for you.

they told me you’d moved on.

can’t blame you –

there’s a Disney store in Times Square.

I lasted two years.

now I’m on the road, haha.

just wanted to say thanks for everything,

and give you a tip.

next time you point the car at the other coast,

leave Neal at home.

go it alone.

p.ferenczi

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Memento Mori


There was a time, no more than a few generations ago, when the concept of death was not as far removed from American lives as it has become today. It was a time when family members died at home instead of in hospitals or nursing homes, when family members witnessed and better understood the dying process, watching it unfold in front of their eyes. Today, death is a taboo subject, much as sex was in the Victorian era. Our language reflects the unease we have developed with dying, as though it’s no longer an integral part of this thing we call life. We speak in euphemisms. People no longer die; they pass away, become the “dearly departed”, move on to their eternal reward. We no longer have cemeteries but have developed memorial parks. In Southern California, the land where eternal youth is worshiped above all, Forest Lawn is the prototypical cemetery, where the dead are placed in a Disneyland like world of reproductions of classic sculptures and art. We have more plastic surgeons ply their trade here than anywhere else in the world. The gravest sin in Hollywood is not theft or lying but being old.

 Though we know better, we have managed to delude ourselves into believing that as long we eat right, exercise regularly, control our cholesterol, we can somehow avoid the fate that is part of life – dying. The following is a true story. One of my patients came to my office for a follow up on the results of one of his tests. Unfortunately, his test revealed that he had an advanced form of cancer. After I shared the life changing news with him, and explained to him the limited treatment options and the expected outcome of his disease, he turned to me and asked, “OK, doc, but what was my cholesterol?” Sadly, he didn’t ask his question in jest.

Throughout the middle Ages and extending to modern times, the Catholic Church inspired the culture of “Memento Mori”, Latin for “Remember Death.” Usually depicted as a skeleton with a scythe, the figure adorned tombstones, churches, and appeared in religious art to remind man of his ultimate fate. Lawrence Durrell wrote that “if art has any message it must be this: to remind us that we are dying without having properly lived.”

The Covid pandemic that has been with us since the beginning of the year has claimed over 350,000 lives in our country alone, and that number is increasing exponentially. To put that in context, it is more than 6 times the number of American lives lost during the entire Vietnam War. Despite this carnage, there are still some who try to minimize the magnitude of this number. Part of the reason is to keep the idea of death at bay, that this is something that may be happening to other people, but will not be happening to us.

Irrespective of the implications of Covid on our own mortality, we as a society need to change our superstitious avoidance of speaking of death openly, and learn to accept the essential truth which death entails. The French philosopher Montaigne wrote: “To philosophize is to learn how to die. To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.”

As a physician who works in a hospital, I see how terribly uncomfortable and fearful the lay public is about death, which is understandable, given our social strictures regarding this topic. What is harder for me to grasp is the fact that many of my own colleagues feel just as uncomfortable, and as a result establish barriers to communication between themselves, their patients, and their patient’s families. Even before Covid, I’ve witnessed many patients who sadly died alone because those who should have been closest to them were too uncomfortable to be in the presence of the dying, as if death itself was a contagious disease. Studies have shown that both doctors and nurses spend progressively less time in a patient’s room once a fatal diagnosis has been established. In talking with dying patients, their biggest fear, besides the fear of pain which today can be controlled with medication, is the fear of dying alone, without the presence of those they have loved by their side. We as a profession and we as a society need to do a much better job of educating ourselves about what happens as a person dies. In four year of medical school, I learned a lot about the mechanisms and the treatment of disease, but I cannot recall a single lecture about the process of dying, and how to best care for the dying patient. With the advent of the hospice movement, some of this is changing, but not nearly fast enough. Too many people I know have trouble even talking of illness with family members, and some remain unable to even set foot in a hospital or funeral home. We have a lot of work ahead of us to bring our culture to face the basic reality of life being irretrievably bound to death.

Posted in America, Beauty, Covid-19, Death and Dying, History, Medicine, News and politics, Religion, Thoughts & Musings, Vietnam War | Tagged | 4 Comments

Perspective


It’s a new year, and the less said of the old one, better. What fresher way to start the new calendar than with a poem from Poetry Monday. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and allow the following to help give you a new perspective.

perspective

home for most feels large,

full of the owned accumulation of a past.

friends, relations orbit

(beloved Moon, uncle Pluto in Baltimore)

exerting tidal forces, streaking the sky according to importance,

the self enjoying Copernican  pride of place.

slip away

like a leaf drops to a stream,

become one bit bobbing anonymous,

bumping against detritus in the flow.

though a few neighbors

note the absence of a single leaf,

the tree still stands.

the discovery

of what one is and needs,

the list so basic essential,

a blueprint

clear uncompromising as thin ice

for building concrete from abstraction –

freedom.

p.ferenczi

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New Year’s Traditions


New Year’s traditions range across cultures and families.  A recent edition of Poets & Writers describes some of these. Rolling empty suitcases around the block to increase one’s chances of traveling (remember when we were able to travel anywhere?), pounding rice to make mocha for good fortune, eating lentils to herald prosperity, and eating twelve grapes for twelve wishes were just a few of the ones described. Some traditions, such as kissing at midnight for romantic luck or throwing pails of water out the window to chase away evil spirits date back over a century.

As a young boy growing up behind the Iron Curtain, we didn’t have television to watch, and the radio consisted of only two stations, one of which was restricted to news and Communist propaganda, the other of which carried music and programs for entertainment. There were two popular comedians who performed on the latter channel every New Year’s Eve, and the entire country would listen in. My grandmother would make a delicious main course of some chicken dish (due to post war scarcity, chicken was the most expensive meat sold in the stores, and thus reserved for holidays and special celebrations.) She would make a chocolate cake with her secret recipe (one she refused to share even with my mom) that remains in my memory as the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten. Keeping the recipe secret was her only vanity, and one that worked. I can never eat a piece of chocolate cake without thinking of her. In addition to the cake, we would have balygli, a traditional holiday dessert of rolled dough filled with either layers of crushed walnuts or poppy seeds and raisins. The joke was that the walnut variety was always more popular with everyone, so it was long gone before the poppy seed one was ever consumed. So why not just make the walnut one? Because to make both was tradition!

The comedians broadcasting the New Year show on the radio always saved their best jokes for the last hour before midnight, and their jokes would get told around the rest of the country for the weeks to follow. Their genius lay in finding humor relatable to a very wide audience, both adult and child. Part of the excitement of the New Year celebration for me was being allowed to stay up until after midnight, and seeing everyone laughing and happy at a time when life was otherwise pretty grim. We would make toasts with spritzer, glasses of wine diluted in half with sparkling soda. Children were allowed to have a glass along with the adults. Perhaps due this tradition, I never considered alcohol to be some secret pleasure to be sought out when I grew older.

How about the rest of you? Did any of you have any special New Year’s Eve traditions growing up? I would love to hear about them.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year, from Medico Musings

Posted in America, Communism, Family, Hungary, Relatioships, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

How History Works


This is the last Poetry Monday of 2020. Like me, I suspect most of you are happy to see this year end, though I’m sure it’s a year we will all talk about for some time to come. For now, take a minute to reflect on this poetry offering of the year. May 2021 be a better year for all of us!

how history works

they raged against it,

that steel abomination,

that industrial phallus upthrust,

poised to rape the Parisian sky.

it was the artists and writers

who denounced it,

the aesthetes who wanted it pulled down.

and almost,

it was.

after the World’s Fair,

no longer needed

to celebrate the power of the Revolution,

the tower was promised to the scrap yard.

then someone said,

“well, we could put a radio antenna up there.”

p. ferenczi

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Hope – The Best Gift for Christmas


As we rapidly approach this Christmas, many I know have expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the coming holiday. Certainly, if Christmas is little more to you than the wrapping of presents, the exchange of gifts, or a big family meal, this feeling of letdown is understandable.  With restrictions on travel and social gatherings, the upcoming celebration will be a toned down affair from prior years. Perhaps, we needed a reminder to help us refocus on the true meaning of Christmas – the arrival of hope, the fulfilling of a promise made long ago, a gift more precious than we are able to appreciate.  In the midst of this horrible pandemic, as many are faced with financial crisis, personal loss, and diminished health, we all need a reminder that we also need to be grateful for what we still have, and accept the message of hope that comes to us from over 2000 years ago. Hope, like humor, permits us to focus upon and bear what is too terrible to be borne. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.” Regardless of your individual circumstances, this is a time to reach out and embrace each other, encourage your fellow travelers on this tiny orb we call Earth, and pass on to the one nearest to you the light which hope brings to the darkness surrounding us all.

Merry Christmas from Medico Musings.

Posted in America, Covid-19, Death and Dying, Family, Religion, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged | 2 Comments